While initially purporting to fight against government suppression, the LRA allegedly turned against Kony's own supporters, supposedly to "purify" the Acholi people and turn Uganda into a theocracy. Kony proclaims himself the spokesperson of God and a spirit medium and claims he is visited by a multinational host of 13 spirits, including a Chinese phantom. Ideologically, the group is a syncretic mix of mysticism, Acholi nationalism, and Christian fundamentalism, and claims to be establishing a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments and local Acholi tradition.
Kony has been accused by government entities of ordering the abduction of children to become child soldiers and sex slaves. 66,000 children became soldiers, and 2 million people were displaced internally from 1986 to 2009.
Kony was indicted in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, but he has evaded capture. Kony has been subject to an Interpol Red Notice at the request of the ICC since 2006. Since the Juba peace talks in 2006, the LRA no longer operate in Uganda. Sources claim that they are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), or South Sudan. In 2013, Kony was reported to be in poor health, and Michel Djotodia, president of the CAR, claimed he was negotiating with Kony to surrender.
By April 2017, Kony was still at large, but his force was reported to have shrunk to around 100 soldiers, down from a maximum of 3,000 in earlier years. Both the United States and Uganda ended the hunt for Kony and the LRA, believing that the LRA no longer posed a significant security risk to Uganda.
Kony was likely born in 1961 in Odek, a village east of Gulu in northern Uganda, to farmers Luizi Obol and Nora Oting. He is a member of the Acholi people. Kony enjoyed a good relationship with his siblings, but was quick to retaliate in a dispute and when confronted would often resort to physical violence. His father was a lay catechist of the Catholic Church, and his mother was an Anglican. His older sister, Gabriela Lakot, still lives in Odek.
Kony was an altar boy until 1976. He dropped out of school at the age of 15.
In 1995, Kony arose to prominence in Acholiland after the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Auma (also known as Lakwena and to whom Kony is believed to be related). The overthrow of Acholi President Tito Okello by Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) during the Ugandan Bush War (1981–1986) had culminated in mass looting of livestock, rape, burning of homes, genocide, and murder by Museveni's army.
The atrocities committed by the Museveni's NRA, now known as the Uganda People's Defence Force, led to the creation of LRA by Joseph Kony. The insurgencies also gave rise to concentration camps in northern Uganda where over 2 million people were confined. The government burned people's properties using helicopter gunships, killing many. There were forced displacements in the northern region. However, international campaigns called for all camps to be dismantled, and for the people to return to their former villages. In 2006 in the course of the Juba peace talks with the LRA rebels, Museveni's government gave permission for the local people to return to their villages. This marked the beginning of rehabilitation of homes, roads, and so on.
Kony has been implicated in abduction and recruitment of child soldiers. While there is no doubt that Kony recruited children, the government of Uganda has equally been accused of abducting and recruiting children into the army. In June 2006, a representative of the United Nations (UN) found more than 5,000 children in the Ugandan army.
The LRA have had battle confrontations with the government's NRA or UPDF within Uganda and in South Sudan for ten years. However, in 2008 the Ugandan army invaded the DRC in search for the LRA in Operation Lightning Thunder. In November 2013, Kony was reported to be in poor health in the eastern CAR town of Nzoka. Despite rumors about Kony's own physical health and safety, he appeared to be alive and functioning on through to the present day.
Looking back at the LRA's campaign of violence, The Guardian stated in 2015 that Kony's forces had been responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 and the abduction of at least 60,000 children. Various atrocities committed include raping young girls and abducting them for use as sex slaves. The actual number of LRA militia members has waxed and waned over the years, being no more than a few hundred as of 2015.
In October 2005, the ICC announced that arrest warrants had been issued for five members of the Lord's Resistance Army for crimes against humanity following a sealed indictment. On the next day, Ugandan defense minister Amama Mbabazi revealed that the warrants include Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, and LRA commanders Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen. According to spokesmen for the military, the Ugandan army killed Lukwiya on 12 August 2006. The BBC received information that Otti had been killed on 2 October 2007, at Kony's home.
In November 2006, Kony met Jan Egeland, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Journeyman Pictures released a 2006 interview with Kony in which he proclaims: "I am a freedom fighter, not a terrorist." He told Reuters: "We don't have any children. We only have combatants."
Kony was believed among followers and detractors alike to have been possessed by spirits; he has been portrayed as an elusive leader. Kony believes in the literal protection provided by a cross symbol and tells his child soldiers that a cross on their chest drawn in oil will protect them from bullets. He also believes in polygamy. He is believed to have had many wives, some of whom were killed during the insurgency, and there are claims that he has 42 children. Kony insists that he and the LRA are fighting for the Ten Commandments. He defends his actions: "Is it bad? It is not against human rights. And that commandment was not given by Joseph. It was not given by LRA. No, those commandments were given by God."
Ugandan political leader Betty Bigombe recalled that, the first time she met Kony, his followers used oil to ward off bullets and evil spirits. In a letter regarding future talks, Kony stated that he must consult his self-styled holy spirit. When the talks did occur, Kony and his followers insisted on the participation of religious leaders and opened the proceedings with prayers, led by LRA's Director of Religious Affairs Jenaro Bongomi. During the 1994 peace talks, Kony was preceded by men in robes sprinkling holy water. According to Francis Ongom, a former LRA officer who defected, Kony "has found Bible justifications for killing witches, for killing [those who farm or eat] pigs because of the story of the Gadarene swine, and for killing [other] people because God did the same with Noah's flood and Sodom and Gomorrah."
The Ugandan military has attempted to kill Kony throughout the insurgency. In Uganda's attempt to track down Kony, former LRA combatants have been enlisted to search remote areas of the CAR, Sudan, and the DRC where he was last seen.
After the September 11 attacks, the United States designated the LRA as a terrorist group. On 28 August 2008, the United States Treasury Department placed Kony on its list of "Specially Designated Global Terrorists", a designation that carries financial and other penalties.
In November 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush signed the directive to the United States Africa Command to provide financial and logistical assistance to the Ugandan government during the unsuccessful 2008–2009 Garamba offensive, code-named Operation Lightning Thunder. No U.S. troops were directly involved, but 17 U.S. advisers and analysts provided intelligence, equipment, and fuel to Ugandan military counterparts. The offensive pushed Kony from his jungle camp, but he was not captured. One hundred children were rescued.
In May 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, legislation aimed at stopping Kony and the LRA. The bill passed unanimously in the United States Senate on 11 March. On 12 May 2010, a motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill was agreed to by voice vote (two-thirds being in the affirmative) in the House of Representatives. In November 2010, President Obama delivered a strategy document to Congress asking for more funding to disarm Kony and the LRA. In October 2011, President Obama authorized the deployment of approximately 100 combat-equipped U.S. troops to central Africa. Their goal is to help regional forces remove Kony and senior LRA leaders from the battlefield. In a letter to Congress, Obama stated: "Although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense".
On 3 April 2013, the Obama administration offered rewards of up to US$5 million for information leading to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of Kony, Ongwen, and Odhiambo.
On 24 March 2014, the U.S. announced they would deploy at least four CV-22 Ospreys and refuelling planes, and 150 Air Force special forces personnel to assist in the capture of Kony.
On 23 March 2012, the African Union announced its intentions to "send 5,000 soldiers to join the hunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony" and to "neutralize" him while isolating the scattered LRA groups responsible for 2,600 civilian killings since 2008. This international task force was stated to include soldiers "from Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo, countries where Kony's reign of terror has been felt over the years." Prior to this announcement, the hunt for Kony had primarily been carried out by troops from Uganda. The soldiers began their search in South Sudan on 24 March 2012, and the search "will last until Kony is caught".
Kony received a surge of attention in early March 2012 when a 30-minute documentary titled Kony 2012 by filmmaker Jason Russell for the campaign group Invisible Children, Inc. was released. The intention of the production was to draw attention to Kony in an effort to increase US involvement in the issue and have Kony arrested by the end of 2012. A poll suggested that more than half of young adult Americans heard about Kony 2012 in the days following the video's release. Kony 2012 has been widely criticized for largely ignoring the fact that Kony was already pushed out of Uganda long before the film was made, for using funds largely for themselves, and for hypocrisy by ignoring human rights abuses by the Ugandan military.
The Arrow Boys militia was founded in Teso in eastern Uganda. The name comes from the fact that they use primitive weapons, such as bows and arrows or clubs, against the better-armed LRA child soldiers. Between 2003 and 2005, they waged a counter-insurgency campaign that forced the LRA out of that region. Militia in Southern Sudan who have fought against the LRA since it fled there from Uganda have adopted the same name. They have had success in driving off small groups of LRA rebels.
Ongwen served as a key member of the LRA and constituted one of Kony's senior aides in the organization. Himself kidnapped as a child, he graduated from being a mere soldier into various places in the hierarchy and stands accused of numerous war crimes. Ongwen surrendered himself to representatives of the CAR in January 2015, which was a major blow to Kony's group. Ugandan army spokesman Paddy Ankunda stated that the event "puts the LRA in the most vulnerable position" and that it "is only Kony left standing." Of the five LRA commanders charged by the ICC in 2004, only Kony remained at large at that time. With only a few hundred fighters remaining loyal to him, it was thought that he would be unable to evade capture for much longer.
In April 2017, Ugandan and US military forces ended their hunt for Kony and his group, with a Ugandan spokesperson stating that "the LRA no longer poses a threat to us as Uganda". At that time, his force was estimated to have shrunk to around 100 soldiers.